The Project That Wouldn't Die
Monday, June 19, 2006
Over the past decade Vibration & Sound Solutions Ltd., a small Alexandria defense contractor, has received a steady flow of federal contracts to work on "Project M" -- $37 million in all from annual "earmarks" by congressional supporters such as Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.).
Project M, a technology involving magnetic levitation, was conceived as a way to keep submarine machinery quieter, was later marketed as a way to keep Navy SEALs safer in their boats and, in the end, was examined as a possible way to protect Marines from roadside bombs.
All the applications have one thing in common: The Pentagon hasn't wanted them.
The company is holding out hope, but with little other business and the congressional funding apparently at an end, VSSL is planning to close its Alexandria headquarters and lab.
The government got its money's worth in Project M, VSSL President Robert J. Conkling said in a recent interview. The technology might still be used to help the nation's military, he said.
"I don't know how you can calculate return on investment" on a system that prevents special operations forces from being injured, he said.
Analysts and others who follow congressional earmarking closely say the company's experience exemplifies one of the pitfalls of the process: Once begun, promising but speculative programs like Project M are hard to kill, sustained by members of Congress who want to keep jobs in their districts, military officials who want to keep their options open and businesspeople who want to keep their companies afloat.
Paul M. Lowell, a civilian Navy employee who for a time oversaw VSSL's work as chief of staff in the Office of Naval Research, said Project M "seemed to me a solution looking for a problem the Navy might have."
"But it kept failing to solve any problems the Navy had," Lowell said. "It looked at first as if it might have some merit. But we found out quickly it didn't really solve the problems. And the company wasn't very responsive and wasn't very robust. . . . It was living entirely" on grants from Congress.
Lowell said Project M wouldn't have lasted as long inside the Navy, where scientific projects are subjected to peer review.
The Navy rejected Project M's use in submarines in 2001. Moran, who said the company's 25 or so jobs were important to his district, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), now chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, kept money flowing to the company until this year.
Moran received $17,000 in campaign contributions from Conkling and his wife over the years.